S'poreans' truncated chat with Anthony Bourdain about migrant domestic workers draws criticism

The late chef was always comfortable discussing both politics and food.

Sulaiman Daud | September 26, 2022, 07:13 PM

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A video clip of the late Anthony Bourdain's 2017 visit to Singapore has gone viral on Twitter in September 2022, prompting discussions on Singaporean attitudes towards foreign workers here.

The clip, which was shared by Twitter user Lauren McKenzie, is 1 minute 44 seconds long and cut from the TV show "Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown", where Bourdain visits various places in Singapore in 2017.

Bourdain died in 2018.

Conversation about migrant domestic workers

As the clip begins, it shows Bourdain eating at a hawker centre with three other people.

The first woman says, "You know why? I think it's because of maids." Bourdain asks what are "maids", and she clarifies that she means "domestic helpers".

The video cuts to shots of the Singaporean public, as she explains that a lot of women in Singapore participate in the workforce.

"And the reason why that is so is because everybody's got a maid, looking after their child at home. So maids are kind of like the opiate of the masses," she adds.

"But an opiate gives you slothful and laying home," Bourdain says, to which the first woman agrees.

"But if you have a maid, you're saying it frees you up to join the workforce," Bourdain says.

The first woman replies, "It frees you up, but it also means that I - my husband now, he doesn't know how to serve himself water."

The others laugh as she adds that her husband gestures for water and waits for it to be served to him. Bourdain asks if the first woman does laundry, and she says no.

He then asks if "anyone here" knows how to do laundry.

The women say they know how to do it, in theory, while the man adds that the guys in Singapore know how, as they served two years of military (national) service.

He adds that the women are "pampered" while the first woman says he's being mean.

Bourdain does his own laundry

The man asks Bourdain when was the last time he did laundry, to which the famed chef replies, "four days ago".

He explains that he lives on his own in New York, and he enjoys doing laundry, in response to the second woman who asks if he got his "butler" to do it.

Bourdain added that he enjoys the process of doing laundry, and it leaves him feeling satisfied and self-reliant.

When the man comments that it's "therapeutic", Bourdain explains: "No, no. I want to tell you, I want to like go out and join the Communist Party. It's like bourgeois, man. You're living off the labour of a repressed underclass. I'm want to start my own cell."

He waits a moment before saying, "I'm just f**king with you," which elicits laughter from the others.

McKenzie, who said she is based in Arizona, U.S., captioned the clip, "No one can call people out right to their faces quite like Anthony Bourdain."

The clip went viral, with over 110,000 likes and 18,000 retweet and quote tweets as of time of writing.

Reactions on Twitter

Most of the quote tweets expressed support for Bourdain's "calling out", and many criticised the others at the table for supposedly "flexing" that they didn't need to do household chores.

Others criticised the Singaporean system itself for its reliance on migrant labour.

However, some did point out that the same labour system is also practised in many other cities, including Bourdain's own home of New York City.


Bourdain's show

The clip is part of a full episode, clips of which you can watch on his website here.

The full episode can be found on YouTube here.

The full episode of Bourdain's "Parts Unknown" series dives deeper into Singapore, where Bourdain expresses both praise and criticism about the country.

The three locals discuss other aspects of the Singaporean system, including economic growth and its trade-offs.

"A place where everything works this well, and the system’s so seemingly different than the one that we are taught to venerate, that’s genuinely confusing," Bourdain comments at one point.

The discussion preceding the viral Twitter moment touched upon what the locals themselves feel may not be so great about Singapore:

"Man: So on the basic level Singapore works in so many ways, family, your security, education, housing, so in a way you're kind of numbed into thinking that everything's wonderful. And then you start to wonder after a while, is there another way of life?

Bourdain: So is there angst?

First woman: I think there's no outlet for it. So everybody's going online and everybody likes to be anonymous about it.

Second woman: Even online, they have paid the price for it. People have been let go of their jobs, and that's the price we have to pay."

Later in the conversation, Bourdain asks, "Do you feel that there is parity, you are paid and treated as well as men?"

They agree, and this leads to the conversation about foreign domestic workers in Singapore.

Possible self-deprecation

However, it was also possible that the women were not "flexing" or glorifying their dependence on foreign labour, but being self-deprecating about themselves or their partners.

The women in the video could not be reached for comment, but man in the video, journalist Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh, shared his thoughts with Mothership about his appearance on the show:

"I think it's always important to shine a light on migrant worker rights in Singapore, so I'm happy that Anthony Bourdain interrogated this issue. This includes discussions about Singaporeans in the middle class and up, specifically our privilege and our dependency on them.

That bit was part of a broader discussion about inequality and our stratified labour model. As part of that, (the first woman) wanted to talk about our dependency on helpers, and how we often treat them poorly. There were a lot of caricatures of spoiled Singaporeans, as well as her then French husband. Some of that context is probably lost in the video.

Also, it was probably more convenient for the editors to focus on spoiled individuals rather than systemic issues.

Nevertheless, it was a treat to be in Bourdain's presence, and I'm glad he interrogated the issue. All people who live in grossly unequal cities, and are dependent on somebody else for food, cleaning, laundry, and other basics, would do well to reflect on privilege."

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Top image from YouTube.